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11th Sunday after Pentecost

Behold the Tree, Exodus 3:1-15, August 28, 2011

During seminary I worked as Assistant Minister at St. Peter Lutheran Church. At one point we did a six week study; each week a different tree of the bible. We talked about Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre and Jonah’s shade plant. The 3rd week was my turn to preach and it was on today’s lectionary passage. So today’s message will be a little different.  

These messages were taken from a book of Dramatic Homilies, which concluded  the last week of Lent with “Behold the Tree of the Cross of Christ.”

This week God appoints a bush, probably a kind of bramble bush, which was transformed into the flames of God’s holy presence.

While in one sense Exodus 3:1 and following is about Moses’ encounter with the divine, it is primarily concerned with God’s revelation of himself. (Deut 33.16; Mk 12.26; Lk 20.37; Act 7:30-34) 

God reveals his personal name to Moses, I AM (I exist and you, Moses, are in the presence of my very being.).  “Moses, take off your sandals for you are standing on holy ground.” (Exod.3:5)

The New Revised Standard Version translates Exodus 3:14 to read, "God said to Moses, 'I am who I am.'" Terence Fretheim, in Exodus, of the Interpretation Bible Commentary series (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1991) writes that this statement, in essence is "I will be God for you." He says, "The force is not simply that God is or that God is present but that God will be faithfully God for them."

"...God will be God with and for the people at all times and places," he explains. "The formulation suggests a divine faithfulness to self: Wherever God is being God, God will be the kind of God God is.

Israel need not be concerned about divine arbitrariness or capriciousness. God can be counted on to be who God is; God will be faithful."

In Scripture, fire often represents God’s purifying and refining work in people’s lives. That God reveals himself as a fire is an image of God’s holiness Fire is also an image of God’s glory. 

The bright flames of the burning bush would serve as a visible reminder to Moses of God’s miraculous and overwhelming majesty in the dark times to follow.  God’s self-revelation as a burning bush takes place on Mt. Sinai, the very place where Moses would again encounter God.

Through the image of the burning bush, God reveals His desire to have relationship with humankind.  God steps in, promises to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, and does it.  Moses is appointed as spokesman, with Aaron’s help, and the beginning of the exodus is under way. 

Let us briefly trace some significant and symbolic uses of fire in Scripture.  Fire can burn or it can purify.  It can destroy or it can refine.  Here are some examples. 

During Lent, it’s easy to be reminded of the ominous flames of hell. And during this particular Lent season, we are looking at “the life-giving tree of the cross” through the branches of trees, or in this case, through the branches of a bush.  As we look through the branches, can we see the cross engulfed in flame? 

And, so, seeing the cross engulfed in flames, can we imagine what our Lord Jesus Christ endured while on the cross when he cried,

“My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” 

And isn’t that the great torment of hell – being God-forsaken ….. Literally? 

>>>The flames of hell bring to mind another image of fire.  This fiery image goes back to the very first tree in the garden – the one that had was used to usher sin into the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience. 

This tree remind us of where that sin led, and where it still leads.  What Adam and Eve saw, was a sword engulfed in flames wielded by angelic cherubim.  Suddenly God’s creation is viewed as through the flames of a brightly burning fire. 

>>>Abraham had carried fire with him, along with wood for the sacrifice, when he took his only son Isaac, whom he loved, up Mt. Moriah to offer him to the Lord, as God had commanded.  The fire was ready, the knife was poised, and then a voice cried out,

“Wait, Abraham!  I AM HERE!”  God supplied another sacrifice – a substitute.  It was a ram caught in a thicket – which was consigned to the flames instead of Isaac.

>>>For Moses, it was the flames of slavery, the fiery flick of the whip, the scorching sun under which God’s people labored.  But just as the burning bush was not consumed – just as young Isaac was not allowed to be consumed – neither would God allow his people to be consumed under Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. 

God had heard their cries and was coming to help his people.  “I AM HERE!” was the message that came from the burning bush.  “I am here!  I am with you.  Watch me work for you, and set you free!”

>>>During the exodus God’s work also involved a pillar of fire which helped to lead his people across the Red Sea, and eventually back to Mt. Sinai.

 Now the entire mountain was then crowned with cloud and flame.  Here God’s Law was proclaimed in such a way that it has been burned into the hearts of the faithful forever.

Then came the flames on the altar of sacrifice, in the tabernacle.  Later those flames would take residence in the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, the Promised Land. 

From Mount Moriah to Mount Sinai to Mount Zion, flames – consuming flames, liberating flames – flames that signified God’s ongoing assurance, “I am here! I am with you!”

>>> N. T. >>> As we fast-forward several thousand years, from the Old Testament to the New, we see another manifestation of God’s presence in flames of fire as the Holy Spirit was given to the first disciples.  At Pentecost we find “tongues as of fire” resting on the heads of Christ’s apostles. 

Those apostles were now aflame with a Gospel to proclaim, a mission to carry out, a world to ignite with the assurance that in Jesus Christ – crucified and raised from the dead – God had said once more, “I am here!  See what I have done for you!”

From the burning bush that Moses saw to the Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost, the flame of God’s love for his people shines brightly.  As we look through the flames and “behold the life-giving tree of the cross, does it remind us of God’s great love for us, his special people? 

Just when the situation may seem hopeless – as hopeless as that faced by the children of Israel in Egyptian slavery – the flame of God’s love flickers.  “I’m still here,” God says in the midst of the flame.  “I still care, and I have come to deliver you!” 

The message of the cross is that God is so much “here with us,” and for us, that he was willing to be bound like a slave.  Jesus himself endured the last and most fearsome of the 10 plagues that descended on ancient Egypt, “the death of the firstborn son.” 

Jesus allowed himself to be consumed for his special people, to subject himself to the flames of hell – only to flicker back once more in the Easter miracle:  “I am here!  I am with you! 

And you will be with me forever in Paradise!”

And the fire burns on.  Every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, we, God’s special people, can imagine the flames of sacrifice on God’s altar once again.  Each time, at the Lord ’s Table, we hear God’s assurance:  “I am here for you!” and I love you.

Let the life-giving flames of God’s love get your. Let the altar candles be what a burning bush was to Moses – an invitation to “behold the life-giving tree of the cross, upon which was hung the salvation of the world.”  Amen.

  

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